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Media Losing Credibility

Ramesh Menon Ramesh Menon
04 Jul 2022
If readers pay for content, the media can break away from the stress of advertisers who  dictate editorial content. The biggest advertiser is the government.

The Indian media today is caught in the pincer of a severe crisis marked by a lack of credibility and responsibility. In a throbbing democracy like India, where there are numerous complicated issues of politics and governance, the media could have been an effective watchdog. It could have helped both government and civil society to course correct. But as we experience daily, this is not what is happening. There is so much toxicity in the presentation of news. We are swamped with fake news on both social media and traditional media.

It has never been so bad. Progressively, it got worse, year after year, month after month and day after day. Many have stopped consuming traditional media and have moved to other more credible sources of information. 

Many online news websites are cashing on this opportunity by asking consumers to pay for the information as credible journalism can be generated only at a cost where the media is free and not under pressure. If readers pay for content, the media can break away from the stress of advertisers who dictate editorial content. The biggest advertiser is the government. Therefore, newspapers, magazines and television channels depend on the ruling party at the Centre and in the states. Publications that are critical of the government are deprived of ads and struggle to survive.

Newspapers, magazines, and even television channels are now opting to package editorial content for the Central and the State governments, ready to pay for space and screen time. Ostensibly, it looks like news generated by reporters, but it is actually paid propaganda. There are special programmes praising government programmes and policies and eulogising powerful politicians. It is the taxpayers who end up paying for it. Often, publicity costs exceed costs incurred on the showcased project.

Degeneration of Television Media

If we have to figure out what is wrong with the media today regarding ethical norms, one only has to look at news television channels. Look at the quality of debates, the kind of guests they get on their shows, and the content spewed out during prime time every night when the viewing pattern is the highest. Noisy, senseless debates punctuate prime time. The focus is on instigating participants to shout and scream at each other. There is no analysis worth the name. After one hour of watching the screaming match, you realise that you did not learn anything.

Anchors do not hesitate in mouthing lies and half-truths. They shamelessly show that they are biased and prejudiced, throwing ethics out of the window. They exploit the power of the visual media to push propaganda camouflaged as news. In the process, they also fan anger and hatred.

Television channels took this route as it was the easiest way to function. If they had to fill 60 minutes of television time with news, then producers would have to whip out at least 30 news stories which would have required 30 reporters to fan out to search for those stories, research it, and shoot and package them. It is not easy. It is also costly. So, the easy way out is to invite speakers to a debate, create a controversy over every minor issue of the day, and make them argue against each other, often leading to a shouting match where nothing is ever heard. 

This madness will only stop when viewers stop watching such shows, as owners of these channels are just chasing television rating points (TRP). If the ratings of these senseless programmes fall, these programmes will stop. Readers must drive the movement to bring back sanity into Indian television news.  

It is only a well-orchestrated campaign to usher in media literacy that will help to counter this form of journalism.

Where is the Media Watchdog?

The media did not stand with numerous activists like Sudha Bharadwaj, Stan Swamy, and poet Varavara Rao who was in his eighties when he was arrested under draconian acts and thrown into jail without a trial. It has been more than three years since this happened, and the charge sheet has still not been filed. See how the media has not thought it fit to take up cudgels to fight for them as the police ensure that their bail applications are rejected again and again. 

At one point, a dejected Stan Swamy, who had spent most of his life fighting for the rights of tribals and the underprivileged, said he would die in jail. He did, and there was not a tear that the government shed.

Media Peddling Half-Truths

The media landscape has changed, probably forever. Today, we have trolling, anonymous attacks, curbs on free speech by vested parties, stereotyping, unhealthy comparisons, fake news, defamation, false charges, prejudices, biases, and twisting of the truth. 

The media is supposed to get its viewers and readers into a critical thinking mode, but that is not happening as it is orchestrating half-truths. It also helps readers and viewers to look beyond the obvious and view the larger picture unravelling different layers and providing various perspectives. Sadly, very little of this is happening. 

As the media primarily painted the farmers’ agitation with a negative brush and ignored the issues, the farmers from Punjab and Haryana, who are better organised, started their newspaper called Trolley Times. They could do that as they were much more organised and had the backing of wealthier farmers. How many such examples can we find where marginalised communities could get coverage without the help of mainline media? They have always found it challenging to be heard.

At another level, the media celebrated farmers’ protest in Maharashtra, where they trudged 200 kilometres from Nashik to Mumbai. At the same time, another demonstration by Dalits in Bhima Koregaon was demonised and attacked.  

If there is an issue that will affect each of us, it is the environmental damage. How is that being portrayed through the media? Most of the time, the media is batting for the industry that is doing very little to repair the damage they have inflicted while developing their business while they laugh while going to the bank.  

Most media organisations do not even have a designated environment reporter. But they will have a business bureau with an entourage of reporters and specialists as that is where the money is. Also, it has powerful vested interests. 

No one is against development and change, but it has to be done with minimum damage and, in the long run, must be sustainable and repair the damage.

Mediocrity

With information available on different platforms, fact-checking has become a critical component. Wrong news and information can have severe consequences and lead to irreparable damage. Even data from primary or secondary sources must be fact-checked.  

Rumours become news as fake news becomes the order of the day, with news stories manipulated to push a specific agenda. 

The tragedy is that it can fan anger and hatred. As the TRP of these channels rises, other sections of an otherwise sane media also mimic it and slip into a mediocre and senseless race to become number one. There are so many examples of this in India's mediascape. The essential ethic of being objective in journalism has been sacrificed. So has accuracy and deep prejudice. There is a clear-cut bias that is visible now both in print and television.   

The ethical parameter is to present news as it is and not colour it and package it to force a point of view on the reader. Every story has two narratives, and it is our business to show that so that the reader or viewer can decide for themselves. 

Skewed Representation

Then, there is the representation of different classes of marginalised people, different castes, different cultures, the physically challenged, and the underprivileged that are missing.

Look at how the media covers social issues. Representation of Dalits, minorities and other backward castes has always been skewed.

Look at how the media covers topics like equality, justice, level playing fields, migration, fundamental rights, literacy, access to health services and other welfare and empowerment programmes. You will soon get the picture. 

This is bound to happen in a society primarily dominated by upper castes. In a community where patriarchal attitudes continue to flourish, what can we expect in terms of gender justice or empathy for causes in that arena?   

How do we expect proper representation when our newsrooms are so skewed? A study done by Newslaundry showed that higher castes dominated the media, with almost no Dalits in senior positions. 

After seven decades of independence, can we see any diversity in the Indian media that can be labelled genuinely inclusive? Think about it.

Guess what the percentage is of upper caste leaders in the media? It was 100 per cent in Hindi news television, 89.3% in English television news; 91.7% in English newspapers; 87.5% in Hindi newspapers; 84.2% in digital media; and 72.7% in news magazines. Why are Dalits missing? Even anchors, panelists and writers are predominantly from upper castes.  

Some events like the Bhima Koregaon violence and the suicide of Dalit PhD scholar Rohit Vemula should worry us as the mainstream media shamelessly trivialised Vemula's suicide by questioning his identity as a Dalit.  

What we see today is how media houses compete with each other to reach the lowest denominator of public taste and not be a pillar of democracy. India's media will never regain credibility if it does not introspect on what it has done and what it continues doing today to damage the fabric of society. 

There are no signs of it even wanting to course correct. The damage is irreversible. The collateral damage is going to be permanent. There is no silver lining at the moment to cling to. 

(Ramesh Menon is an author, award-winning journalist, documentary filmmaker and educator)

 

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